Al-Shabaab and Chinese Trade Practices in Mozambique

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In 2020, eight Mozambican public officials and one Chinese national named Zhao were arrested for illegally harvesting and exporting timber from Cabo Delgado — Mozambique’s northernmost province — to China. According to local reports, five of the Mozambicans are awaiting trial while Zhao and three Mozambicans have been released, and the seized wood was returned to Zhao personally.

Chinese manufacturing firms’ appetite for commodities drives people like Zhao to seek their fortunes in vulnerable communities around the world. Frequently, local elites find it in their interest to enable these firms’ engagement in illegal business practices. During a fieldwork visit to the region in July, for instance, local officials in Cabo Delgado’s district of Montepuez described how Chinese timber traders flouted local laws with impunity. This type of sentiment can be found not just across the rest of Mozambique, but across Africa and around the world.



Illegal Chinese business practices in Cabo Delgado are making the province less safe. Cabo Delgado is home to an Islamist insurgency known as al-Shabaab (or Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama, not to be confused with the al-Shabaab in Somalia) that has killed at least 3,000 people since October 2017. The illegal timber trade is exacerbating the conflict because it provides a valuable source of income to the insurgency, and it fuels discontent in the surrounding areas that the insurgency can feed off — namely labor abuses, lost livelihoods from deforestation, and increased vulnerability to severe weather.

Cabo Delgado is an acute and instructive example of the nexus among insecurity, corruption, and corporate malfeasance that may arise again unless Chinese officials take greater action.

Cabo Delgado Timber Trade

Illicit trade and corruption have long bedeviled Mozambique. Its timber reserves were first plundered during the Portuguese colonial period, but illegal trade in endangered species, narcotics, and gemstones has flourished since independence up to the present day. For decades, Cabo Delgado has acted as a hub for illicit trade between Asia and Africa.

This unaddressed illegal trade is partially related to the fact that Mozambique’s civil war, which began in 1977, did not truly end with the 1992 General Peace Agreement. Mozambican independence from Portugal in 1975 created a power vacuum that was filled by Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (commonly known as FRELIMO). Previously, FRELIMO had fought Portuguese colonialism with Soviet and Chinese support. Almost as soon as FRELIMO emerged as the leading power in Mozambique, however, a rival party named Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (known by its acronym, RENAMO) launched a civil war that ended in the uneasy truce of 1992.

Despite the peace, RENAMO contested that national elections were not free and fair, so continued to pose a military threat. As such, meager state resources were overstretched, including in Cabo Delgado. It was only in 2017 that an indefinite truce was signed between the two parties — the same year that the Islamic insurgency broke out. However, RENAMO now has a splinter group of dissidents who do not recognize their new party’s leader elected after the death of Afonso Dhlakama. They call themselves the Junta Militar da RENAMO and they are still fighting the Mozambican state, mainly in the provinces of Sofala and Manica.

Furthermore, the collusion of powerful Maputo-based elites is a long-running problem for the country. FRELIMO has long had factions within its ranks who corruptly accumulated wealth and leveraged their political position to sell resources internationally. In the 1990s, high-profile murders around the privatization of banks were a common occurrence, and more recently there has been a spate of violence around ruby mining in Cabo Delgado. Illegal logging is therefore just another chapter in FRELIMO’s inability to root out damaging rentier activities from their ranks. But unlike endangered species, gemstones, or narcotics, timber is more easily disguised as a legally sourced commodity in global value chains.

Consequences of Inaction

The al-Shabaab insurgency will continue to profit from the illegal timber trade if no action is taken, and the human, economic, and environmental situation in the rest of the province will deteriorate further.

A study published in 2019 estimated that al-Shabaab gains 125 million meticais ($2 million) per month from illegally extracted timber. A local expert on Mozambique’s timber trade stated that “we were unable to link Chinese traders directly with al-Shabaab … but we know that the timber harvested in areas controlled by the militants was sent to China and Vietnam.” He explained that al-Shabaab recruits many Tanzanians and Mozambicans who make sales in safer port towns like Mtwara and Pemba. It is likely here that Chinese traders are engaged.

Even outside areas controlled by al-Shabaab, logging activities have been linked with human trafficking, child labor, health risks, excessively long hours, abuse, and wage withholding.

The sheer scale of deforestation in Mozambique has also meant that hurricanes have wrought more damage on populations than they otherwise would. Deforestation has also led to a loss of traditional livelihoods, which could make it easier for al-Shabaab to recruit new members to its ranks.

Lastly, the proliferation of illegal trade also represents valuable income that the local authorities are losing to criminals in the form of lost taxes. Notwithstanding the risk of embezzlement, this revenue could be spent on building local infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, and enhancing security against al-Shabaab.

So far, Maputo has largely addressed the insurgency as a security issue to be dealt with militarily. Western and African allies have been forthcoming with military assistance in light of the natural gas interests that are under threat, and they have made great strides in recent weeks. But even if they successfully quash al-Shabaab, inaction on the illegal timber trade risks allowing grievances to fester and conflict to reemerge.

Chinese Demand and Chinese Traders

Given the size of China’s market and the influence of Chinese firms, any solution to Mozambique’s illegal timber trade depends on Chinese action.

In 2017 the Mozambican government placed a ban on the export of unprocessed logs in a bid to encourage the growth of more value-generating industries locally, increase local employment opportunities, and address deforestation. But despite these laws, the majority of timber products leaving Mozambique for China are unprocessed logs; Mozambique is believed to be the largest exporter of illegal timber to China on the whole continent. According to Mozambique’s deputy director of forestry, the whole country’s timber trade is “dominated by Chinese people who go to the bush and convince the poorest people to cut the logs.” In 2020, an estimated 99 percent of the country’s total timber exports were destined for China.

As scholars working on Chinese-African relations for several years, we have witnessed and documented many ways in which Chinese engagements have contributed to economic development goals in Africa. In fact, even in the case of Chinese loggers in Cabo Delgado, it is not a uniform story. According to the Mozambican historian Yussuf Adam, al-Shabaab attacked and destroyed a Chinese sawmill called Mr. Forest in Mocímboa da Praia in August 2020. That same sawmill was cited by the International Institute for Environment and Development, a U.K.-based research institute, for its positive contributions to the local economy in 2017. Thus, while some Chinese traders are colluding with al-Shabaab, others appear to be running afoul of them.

However, such legal investors are currently overshadowed by the much larger cohort of illegal traders intent on profiting in this largely unregulated space. Like many Chinese migrants in Africa, these illegal traders almost certainly operate on the fringes of the Chinese authorities’ awareness. Chinese embassies realistically do not have the capacity to oversee their nationals engaged in such activities, and often their only interaction is to take them off the hands of local police forces (if caught) and send them home.

Confronting Elite Protections

Even if Chinese officials sought to crack down on their citizens from engaging in illegal practices in Mozambique, local elites who have a stake in these illicit trades will work to protect the Chinese traders who enrich them.

Chinese traders have been operating in the region since long before al-Shabaab arrived, and Chinese officials have previously recognized their responsibility for Mozambique’s deforestation. For instance, in 2013 the forestry administrations of China and Mozambique co-created a two-day workshop in Pemba for Chinese logging companies to learn about local laws. More recently, in January 2020 China legislated a ban on buying, processing, or transporting illegally sourced timber.

China’s collaboration with Mozambican authorities were even heralded as a success in August 2020 when they exchanged information on illegal traders smuggling 82 containers out of Cabo Delgado. Local authorities subsequently recovered 66 containers in January 2021, and nine people were arrested.

But given the scale of the illegal timber trade, recovering 66 containers is a drop in the bucket. Cabo Delgado’s provincial prosecutor, Octávio Zilo, identified the total quantity of recovered timber as 2,032 cubic meters. Mozambican sources report that in 2018, 600,000 cubic meters were exported in the first trimester alone — the returned containers represent no more than half a day’s work based on those numbers.

Powerful Mozambican officials who protect Chinese traders operating illegally present possibly the greatest challenge to addressing this crisis. Indeed, the decision to release Zhao from custody in February 2021 was made by the Mozambican authorities. Chinese authorities could still have issued a warrant for his arrest and trial in China if he was guilty enough for them to return those 66 containers, but they did not do so.

If anything, the amount of media attention around these 66 containers is a distraction that makes Chinese and Mozambican authorities seem to be doing something while masking the true scale of the tragedy.

Shutting down supply lines to China is no panacea. Parallel markets may still arise in their wake. But as long as China is importing over 90 percent of Mozambique’s timber, it has an unquestionably important role to play. Thus, China should enforce legislation to address these supply chains.

Monitoring and Enforcement

Even if some Mozambican elites obstruct meaningful attempts to address the crisis, the Chinese government still has the power to create and destroy markets for these illicit goods. Monitoring and enforcement are key in this regard.

On Sept. 14, the Chinese foreign ministry’s director general of African affairs stated that some Chinese firms involved in illegal mining activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo “will be punished and sanctioned by Chinese government” [sic]. This is a very positive signal, and it will be instructive to see how these penalties are applied in practice.

However, these mining firms were already arrested and investigated by local authorities, according to the Chinese official. There is therefore no guarantee that China will behave similarly in situations where local elites protect Chinese traders.

In the absence of Mozambican support, China can still enforce dissuasive penalties for Chinese firms that do not comply with its Guide on Sustainable Overseas Forest Management. Moreover, Chinese authorities could ensure compliance with Mozambican law such that any unprocessed timber that arrives in China — even if it is not illegal in China — should be assumed to be illegally extracted unless proven otherwise.

And if there is cooperation on the Mozambican side then more is possible. For instance, civil society groups have called for forest inventories, a moratorium on new forestry concessions, and improved monitoring and enforcement of timber transports at strategic checkpoints. Internet-based timber-tracking technologies have also emerged in recent years, which would allow for greater coordination between Chinese and Mozambican customs officials.

Lastly, Western consumers are not absolved of responsibility for these supply chains either. Chinese furniture makers and other manufacturers buy this timber with a view to selling their goods internationally. Western companies have supply chains that run through Chinese factories, past the customs officials in China and Mozambique, and right down to the communities in Cabo Delgado discussed in this piece. Thus, authorities in the United States and Europe need to improve tracking and enforcement over the source of finished timber products from China.

Nevertheless, for all the negative impacts of illegal timber trading, there are also local livelihoods that depend on it. It is therefore not the wholesale disengagement with these commodities that will make a difference, but rather a more conscious and regulated approach to ensure that lives are not exploited or destroyed by these greater economic forces.

Looking Ahead

As long as political and business elites in Mozambique benefit from illegal trade practices, there will be voices that dissuade Chinese officials from doing anything about the corrupt practices of Chinese firms in the timber trade. Despite both sides stating that they wish to end the violence in Cabo Delgado, they have so far failed to significantly thwart the illegal timber trade that fuels the region’s insecurity both directly and indirectly. And as long as China remains the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, its demand for primary commodities will risk creating similar circumstances in other regions affected by conflict.

China often prides itself for its policy of non-intervention and its principle of “developmental peace” by which economic engagements may drive peacebuilding. But in places like Cabo Delgado, China’s limited action and inability to control the economic engagements of its nationals are fundamentally destabilizing a state that needs more support.

Although the recent military intervention by African partners (e.g., the Southern African Development Community’s standby force, and the Rwandan army) offers hope that the conflict with al-Shabaab may end soon, resolving the multiple crises of insecurity and violence in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region is going to take more than firepower and added personnel.



Sérgio Chichava is the director of the Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Económicos in Maputo, Mozambique and co-editor of the book China and Mozambique: From Comrades to Capitalists.

Henry Tugendhat covers China-Africa and China-Latin America peace and security engagements at the United States Institute of Peace and is a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.

Image: Voice of America (Portuguese)